On the Corner

New York’s Undocumented Day Laborers Fight for Their Piece of the Big Apple

The Satmars seem genuinely bewildered, even wounded by the Polish women's complaints. "We clean our own floors on our hands and knees; it's cleaner that way," says Sarah Stern, a local resident who has used Polish cleaning women for years. As for the wages: "They get off the boat and the next day they are making more than minimum wage. We usually pay them seven dollars an hour. We are poor people; the average family here has 12 children; many of the husbands make less than they're paying the cleaning woman. How can we pay them more?" A prominent local rabbi asks simply, "If they can make more elsewhere, why are they here working for us?"

They can't make more. In Greenpoint, home to New York's Polish community, "Everyone says, 'Don't go to Williamsburg. You'll make the least money there, you'll get stuck there, you'll never learn English,' " explains Tomasz Lubas, a social worker at the Polish & Slavic Center. House cleaning is the standard route into the economy for Polish women—they are scrubbing homes all over New York City. The younger women—and those who speak some English—work through agencies or word of mouth. They make $10 to $12 an hour cleaning homes on the Upper East Side or in Park Slope. Hooper and Lee is the corner of last resort.

All through the day the Polish women come and go from the corner, finishing one job and returning to find another. An hour before sunset, the sidewalks are filled with men in black coats, and the Sabbath warning siren blows, sounding out across the rooftops. The Polish women work more quickly now, finishing the last of their cleaning. If the sun has already set, and the Jews are proscribed from touching switches or machinery, they ask the cleaning women to turn on the lights and stove before they leave. The Polish women oblige, and then, with throbbing hands, pocket their money and head back to rented rooms.


The Italians and Irish are gone now from Richmond Hill. They took Jesus Christ with them, pulled his image down from the wall of the squat brick building that was once a Catholic church, at the corner of 118th Street and 97th Avenue. Today pictures of other long-haired, bearded men who fell victim to religious strife—Sikhs killed in combat with the Indian army—hang on the wall. The former church is now the Gurdwara Sahib, the largest Sikh temple in New York City. Half an onion dome has been grafted onto the aluminum-sided rectory. In tattered clothes and faded turbans, 35 men stand outside in the early morning, waiting for work.

Ranjit Singh is one of those men. When he came to New York, he knew no one, had no money, and slept on the temple floor. He left India in 1995 after twice being tortured by the Indian police, he says. "They tied my arms behind my back, threw the rope over a beam, and pulled me into the air until I passed out." His alleged crime was speaking out against government repression of the Sikh minority, which makes up about 2 percent of India's population. Violence has been a constant since the early 1980s, when the Hindu government shelled the Sikhs' Golden Temple. The Sikhs responded by assassinating Indira Gandhi. For $10,000, an "agent" arranged Mr. Singh's journey to Queens: a half-dozen plane changes in countries whose names he never learned, a walk through the Mexican desert into southern California, then on to New York by train.

The U.S. government granted him political asylum and a work permit. Yet job opportunities are limited for 50-year-old men in turbans who speak no English. A farmer by trade, Mr. Singh found a job in Jersey stocking shelves—$5.50 an hour minus train fare left him with $25 a day. He had a family to bring over, a wife and four children. He heard you could make more money standing on the corner, getting hired by the dozens of Sikh contractors who live in Richmond Hill.

In New York's construction industry, carpenters are Irish, Mohawks still work the high steel, and South Asians do the brickwork. At some point in its life, every brownstone in New York City will have to be pointed. A man on a scaffold fights a bucking, screaming electric grinder through the grid of brick and stone, cutting the loose mortar from the joints, then trowels freshly mixed grout into the gaps. The work is tedious, loud, dirty, and occasionally dangerous. Getting hired off the corner month after month, Mr. Singh, the Indian farmer, gradually became a New York City mason. Day labor paid his family's passage to Queens, as well as the rent on a small apartment until his teenage sons found work. In the late 1990s, when work was plentiful, Mr. Singh made $15,000 a year.

Some, like Mr. Singh, come for freedom. Some just come for the money. They arrive on short-term tourist visas won through a U.S. government lottery program. Union construction workers make upwards of $250 a day, and so a skilled Sikh day laborer—though undocumented and nonunion—can make a flat rate of $100 or even $125 a day. Untrained laborers start at $70, or if things are quiet, $65. The workers refuse to go lower—to do so would set a bad precedent and drop wages for everyone. On this much the workers agree. Yet for Sikhs, as for others, engendering cohesion among a transient workforce is an uphill battle.

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